George Clooney takes on Joseph Heller’s dark, satirical novel that he penned in 1961, starring in it, directing two of the series six episodes and producing it as well. Trying to reproduce Catch-22 is no easy feat although the insanity of war and the weird characters that war produces lend itself well to the insanity we see on a daily basis today.
Unlike the novel, and the 1970 film that was directed by Mike Nichols, Clooney and his writers take on a more linear approach and play the events in more chronological order, something Heller himself disapproved of. In an interview he did with Rolling Stone back in the day, he said: “Put the events in chronological order, and you’ll find an uneventful story about a bombardier and a colonel who wants his men to fly more missions than anyone else.”
The problem with it is, like many adaptations, if you have read the book and remember it well, then you’ll be on the fence with it. Filmed mainly in Italy, where Clooney reportedly spends much of his time, the cinematography has a sepia-toned, dusty feel for the B-25 bases during the war.
The cast is excellent. Clooney as the mugging General Scheisskopf (Shithead) who rises from Lieutenant to Lieutenant General is a perfect foil. Kyle Chandler is outstanding as Colonel Cathcart, the tough-talking, an often idiotic commander who keeps raising mission-counts to buck for a promotion. Martin Balsam played the role brilliantly in the 1970 version. But if anything Chandler outdoes him. Hugh Laurie (House), and Daniel David Stewart as the uber-capitalist Milo Minderbinder, who is out to make a profit and doesn’t care where, whether it be from the Allied side or even the Germans. It was a not-so-subtle jab at firms like Haliburton et al in today’s world.
But the film revolves around Yossarian, the bombardier who’s only mission of note is to get out of the war at any price. He’s expertly played by Christopher Abbott. Yossarian takes everything about the war personally and his only way is to complete his mission total. But with the rising mission counts frustrating him, he seeks to plead insanity in a war gone insane that is run by lunatics straight out of the insane asylum.
But, says the camp doctor Daneeka, who delivers his lines like a military Groucho Marx, played well by Grant Heslov, who also directed two of the episodes there is a catch….Catch-22.
“Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat isn’t really crazy, so I can’t ground him,” says Daneeka.
“Ok, let me see if I’ve got this straight,” asks Yossarian. “In order to be grounded, I’ve got to be crazy. And I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded, that means I’m not crazy anymore, and I have to keep flying.”
“You got it, that’s Catch-22,” says Daneeka. “Whoo… That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” Yossarian says… “It’s the best there is,” deadpans Doc Daneeka adds.
Giancarlo Giannini is perfectly cast as the old Italian pimp where the horny GIs like to spend as much time as possible. His lines, as a survivor of Italy’s long list of glorious losses in war, are perfectly delivered.
The bombing runs where Yossarian has a non-obstructed, first-hand view of the war, are something that is both beautiful and terrifying. One of my bucket list things to do was to fly in the nose (bombardier position) of a B-17. Of course, flying there in wartime is a very different proposition.
And every time Yossarian flies another mission, it takes a little piece of his own sanity with it. The officers who are insistent on sending the pilots up in the sky full of death are immune to both their suffering and the horrors of it, safely remaining on the ground. And while their bombastic aura of dealing with subordinates is tough sounding, they show their true colors when dealing with superiors of their own.
While satire is often hard to capture on the small screen, the funny lines are often too drawn out and could have benefited from more snappy timing.
This series with the insanity that is war and the larger insanity of those behind it will lend itself well to the current events as the United States, already in endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, while still actively engaged in Syria and elsewhere is rattling its saber with Iran, Venezuela, North Korea and elsewhere.
Hulu, which released “Catch-22” on Friday, is taking aim at both Netflix and Amazon Prime with their original productions put out a worthy effort here. You will enjoy it without being wowed. It is good, because of the stellar cast but just misses hitting it out of the park.